Animal lovers like me hate this well-known metaphor, but it's true nonetheless: if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly boil the water, the frog will never notice. The temperature will simply climb until the unfortunate frog simply expires, never knowing what hit him.
Yet the metaphor is perfect for the kind of thing that's happening to our bodies on a daily basis. Flying beneath the radar of awareness, we're constantly being exposed to a witch's brew of chemicals, hormone mimics, toxins and industrial waste that may be changing our very makeup.
"It's scary, very scary", says Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg school of Public Health.
And the canary in the coalmine- the harbinger of things to come- is the aforementioned frog.
Let me explain.
Bizarre deformities in water animals (like frogs) are often the first eerie signs of a potential health catastrophe, reports Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times. Frogs and salamanders, for example, have begun to sprout extra legs. In Lake Apoka, a heavily polluted lake in Florida, male alligators have developed stunted genitals. Male smallmouth bass in the Potamac are transforming into "intersex fish"' with female characteristics. Eighty percent of these male fish are now producing eggs.
Scientists suspect that the cause of these mutations are a class of chemicals called "endocrine disrupters". These chemicals "mimic" hormones and cause all manner of deformities. According to Kristoff, scientists are noticing large increases in the number of genital deformities among newborn boys. "These endocrine disrupters have complex effects on the human body, particularly during fetal development of males", writes Kristoff. They act as weak estrogens, which is one of the reasons that developing males tend to be more sensitive.
There's evidence that male sperm count is dropping and genital abnormalities are increasing in newborn boys. "Some studies show correlations between these abnormalities and mothers who have greater exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy, through everything from hair spray to the water they drink", reports Kristoff.
The Endocrine Society recently issued a 50 page statement on the problem:
"We present the evidence that endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology."
Interestingly, there may also be an obesity link. "The rise in the incidence in obesity matches the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a role in generation of obesity" says the Endocrine Society report.
I wish I could tell you the solution is as simple as taking some vitamins and eating organic food. Unfortunately it's not. But it sure makes sense that we pay attention to our chemical exposure and try to limit it as much as possible. Eating organic food when possible- especially organic versions of the Environmental Working Groups "Dirty Dozen" foods- is a small start, but hardly enough.
And giving the liver- the organ that's ground zero for detoxification in the body- all the help it can get is certainly on the short list of things that make sense. Nutrients like milk thistle, selenium, alpha lipoic acid and N-Acetyl-Cysteine are top of the list for nutrient support of the liver. Freshly made vegetable juice (and/or green drinks like Barlean's Greens ) make a lot of sense as well.
The real solution- if there is one- is probably more political than nutritional. We have to demand accountability from the companies polluting our water, air and planet with their chemical refuse. And at the very least, never take at face value the self-serving statements from polluters that there's "no evidence that these chemicals are dangerous".
If you believe that, I've got a nice bridge to sell you.